Confabulation

This blog is a continuation in a series I am writing about my husband’s brain injury.  If you wish to read the story in order, go back in my archives and find Begin at the Beginning…all the ones in the category brain injury tell my story. Some are longer than others…they come in chunks of time…sometimes quickly and others much slower.  Thanks for taking the time to read and being patient as I walk through the one of the toughest parts of my life again with new eyes to see how God used the broken pieces to create something beautiful.

I love words.  I like to search them out, and love the way some of them roll off the tongue.  I am always listening for new words and adding to my collection. Confabulation.  This is a word I had never heard before the head injury, but one I became quite familiar with after.  The definition is: to fill in gaps in one’s memory with fabrications that one believes to be facts.  It seems that the brain, in an effort to create understanding where there is none, makes things up.  For example, if I asked Bill what he did during the day, he would create elaborate lists of all the things he did, such as went to the mall, got some gas, ate lunch with a friend…all normal things he might have done on a regular day.  Very few of the things he listed were possible since he was in the hospital, but because he had no idea of what he did, and he knew he should know, his brain filled in the blanks.  Confabulation is a fancy name for lying.  The difference between the two is that someone who confabulates doesn’t know he is lying.  He believes what he says is true.  These fabrications made for some very interesting conversations over the months and years that followed.

On Valentine’s Day I arrived and he was so excited to see me he was waiting at the nurses’ station.  He immediately said, “I have something for you.”  He was agitated but grinning from ear to ear like a child who cannot contain a surprise.  I had bought him a little gift as well…from the gift shop because I didn’t have time to go elsewhere.  It was two stuffed dinosaurs, one red and one white and their necks were intertwined.  I had wrapped it up, but he ignored the gift in my hand and took me to his room where he pulled out a small box.

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He thrust it into my face and said, “Open it. Hurry.”  How could I not?  I was stunned by an opal necklace surrounded by diamonds.  I just looked at him and he had a satisfied and proud smile beaming from his face.

After my oohs and ahhs, my first seemingly casual question was “Where did you get this?” He had no access to this kind of jewelry and I was worried that he had ‘picked it up’ somewhere on the hall.

His little boy answer was, “It took me a long time to find it.”

Once again I calmly asked, “Where did you get this?”

His face, still lit up like a Christmas tree he said, “I shopped all day to find it.  I went to a lot of stores.  When I saw it I knew you would like it so I bought it.”

“What stores did you go to and who took you?”

“I just went by myself…to the stores.  You know, the stores where they have stuff and necklaces.”

I put the necklace on, still not knowing where it came from.  He was so proud, but his confabulation was a bit of a problem in this instance.  Finally, a nurse told me that his dad had visited earlier in the day.  Sure enough Ray had bought the necklace and given it to Bill to give to me.  I still have it.  And the dinosaurs are still around here somewhere too.

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On the weekends there were no set visiting hours since there wasn’t therapy on those days, so I would go in before work on Saturdays and sit through breakfast in the day room.    At breakfast each morning he would be asked the same questions, everyone on the unit was asked the same ones.  Where are you?  What happened to you?  Who is the president?  What is todays date?  There were other current event questions, such as ‘who won the super bowl?’ but the main ones stayed the same.  At some point Bill realized they were going to ask him questions and he would get angry as it got closer to his turn to answer.  He paced and walked up and down the hallway.  In his room he had a calendar on which we would cross out each day with a big red marker, so he went to look at the date.  It is odd how the brain works…he could remember they were going to ask him what day it was, but even when he looked at the calendar he couldn’t remember the date.  No problem…he just confabulated his answers.  Where are you?  Georgia Baptist Hospital.  (That’s where he was born.)  What happened to you?  I got hit, or I broke my arm, or I fell…or I don’t know, cause there’s nothing wrong with me.  Who is the president?  Jimmy Carter (That’s who was president when he was a boy.) What is today’s date?  I think it’s June?  1976? or Nobody ever knows the date…how many times have you asked the lady at the cash register what day it is?  It is a stupid question.   The current event ones were funny as he continually said that he had won the super bowl, or that he was in the Olympics.

There was also the time I came one afternoon when the nurse asked him to tell me what he did that day.  He thought about it for a long time and then hung his head in shame.  He wouldn’t even look up at me as he said, “I tried to run away.” I thought he was confabulating again…but this time he told the truth.  They had found him in the parking lot telling people he was going home.  The problem was that he couldn’t find his car and just kept wandering around until someone got a nurse to bring him back inside. (I have no idea where his sitter was.) The nurse said, “No we don’t dwell on the bad things. Tell her the good thing you did today.”  He thought a long time again and then brightened up, “I got dressed all by myself!”  It was a proud moment.  He remembered two things he did in one day and he didn’t make either of them up!

Later on, when we had children he told them, “Never lie to your mother.  Somehow she always knows.”  What he might not have realized is that he trained me to know a lie from the truth by watching the eyes and facial expressions…a silver lining of confabulation that has served me pretty well as the mother of four.

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